The United States Postal Service (USPS) may soon be more important than it ever has been before.
With the November elections approaching and Americans still grappling with the COVID-19 epidemic, record numbers of voters stand poised to submit absentee ballots from home. Given this, one of the linchpins that will determine whether the upcoming election is a success or not will rest upon USPS’s performance.
However, with the spotlight shining directly on USPS, many are left wondering if they’re up to the challenge. In fact, USPS’s newfound importance has prompted a host of critical news stories covering the agency as skeptical reporters attempt to determine whether a surge of mail-in ballots will overwhelm the much-maligned agency. This is a fair question.
According to a few different estimates, perhaps around 160 million Americans will likely participate in the coming November general elections. While nearly 75 percent of registered voters are legally eligible to cast an absentee ballot, around half—80 million—of participating voters are expected to take advantage of this privilege. Certainly, many of these 80 million Americans will turn in their ballots at designated drop boxes rather than using the mail service. But for the sake of arguing, does USPS have the capacity and funding to securely handle an influx of 80 million parcels?
USPS is one of the more unique government agencies in that it prides itself on receiving no tax dollars. Their operations are intended to be funded solely from the sale of postage, but in truth, it has been bailed out before. Because of a long history of financial woes, USPS has taken loans from the Treasury Department. However, their financial standing surprisingly looks stable. As of late June, the postal service had nearly $13 billion cash on hand and almost another 2 billion in assets.
What’s more, Congress has given USPS permission to borrow an additional $10 billion to survive the pandemic, which it turns out might not have been necessary. Nevertheless, Congress can give them additional borrowing ability should it become necessary. Suffice it to say, USPS has plenty of cash to help administer the election if they are smart with their money.
Beyond this, the postal service is already well-staffed for a surge of absentee ballots. USPS employs around 630,000 workers, and “In the fiscal year 2019, the Postal Service delivered 143 billion pieces of mail to 160 million delivery addresses and operated more than 31,000 Post Offices,” the USPS website reads. The agency even maintains extra staff in the event of an emergency. Considering the hulking workforce and experience, USPS should have little trouble delivering ballots.
Besides, the predicted surge will be little more than a rounding error for the postal service. If they deliver 80 million additional ballots, that will only represent an annual increase of 0.056 percent of parcels. Even if you assume that all 80 million ballots will require two-way mailing—sending the ballot to a voter and then returning it to the election’s office—that would only account for a total increase of 0.11 percent of work. That’s so minuscule that it could go largely unnoticed.
Despite USPS’s apparent readiness to preside over an election relying heavily on absentee voting, some worry that the mail service doesn’t have the experience or protocols in place to prevent fraud or ballot tampering. However, this is a mostly misguided concern. USPS has long delivered sensitive and important documents—whether they are bank statements with personal information, government notices or simply expensive packages—and for decades, postal workers have delivered absentee ballots. The bottom line is that USPS already has the security measures in place to help ensure the integrity of the elections.
Even though USPS is well-positioned for the coming election, more can be done. The mail service announced that there is a risk that a surge in last-minute ballot mailings could ultimately be delivered after Election Day. Another danger is that different USPS facilities could be afflicted with COVID-19. Nevertheless, average voters and the agency can work to mitigate these hazards. Voters can return their ballots early or use drop boxes, and USPS can cross-train their employees to take on different roles. Further, USPS ought to develop a deeper bench of temporary employees who can pitch in if they become needed.
In the end, Americans should feel confident that the USPS can handle the election. After all, Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union said that this will be a “piece of cake for postal workers.” Let’s hope so because the fate of the Republic might be in postal workers’ hands.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.